02_verdi_don_carloVerdi - Don Carlo
Rolando Villazon; Marina Poplavskaya; Simon Keenlyside; Ferruccio Furlanetto; Sonia Ganassi; Royal Opera House; Antonio Pappano
Royal Opera House/EMI 6 31609 9

Verdi’s Don Carlo is an opera of star crossed lovers, forbidden love, marital infidelity and other miseries, one of his greatest masterworks, certainly the most monumental, though flawed. It exists in many versions, French, Italian, five and four acts, some revised several times. Nowadays there is a recording for each and hence there are over 10 versions available on DVD, not to mention CDs. In my opinion the 5 act version, such as this one in Italian is the most satisfying for completeness of the music and the beauty of the language. After all Verdi should rightly be enjoyed in Italian.

Coproduced with the Metropolitan Opera, this production was the highlight of the 2008 season of the Royal Opera House. It heralded the return of Rolando Villazon as its principal tenor. Although his voice has had problems, he seems to have recovered sufficiently to cope with the title role. He looks the part, attractive and passionate, though sometimes he sounds strained. Marina Poplavskaya as the young Queen provides a wonderful portrayal, in excellent soprano voice and sympathetic personality. As the anguished King Philip, certainly one of Verdi’s most memorable creations, Ferruccio Furlanetto is a veteran of the role. He sang it under Karajan and follows the great tradition established by the legends, Boris Christoff and Nicolai Ghiarov. The pinnacle of the opera is the 4th act chamber scene where nearly all of the principals come together with intense drama and superb music beautifully integrated in the Quartet, very moving indeed.

The production is traditional, in good taste. The sets are imaginative and architecturally interesting and very well coordinated with the action. Antonio Pappano, a favourite conductor of Italian operas these days, conducts with vigour and great authority, making this set outstanding, probably the best currently available.

03_Glass_OrpheeGlass - Orphée
Portland Opera; Anne Manson
Orange Mountain Music OMM 0068 (www.orangemountainmusic.com)

As I was all but indifferent to the music of Philip Glass, I was not eagerly looking forward to a performance of Orphée at the 2007 Glimmerglass Opera Summer Series. That year the theme for the season was the Orpheus legend and the company staged operas by Offenbach, Gluck, Glass, Monteverdi and Haydn. As expected, every performance was outstanding but Orphée was the surprise hit, unexpectedly making a provocative first impression and a lasting wish to hear it again.

For his libretto Glass lifted the script from Jean Cocteau’s 1950 film Orphée and moved the setting to a stage-wide, modern studio-apartment. As we might expect from Cocteau’s fascination with mirrors, when the characters move back and forth to “The Zone” they simply step through a mirror. It’s all true to the love story of mythology but the mise-en-scène brings the action comfortably into the present, or at least to the mid 20th century.

The Portland Opera production, recorded live in November 2009, employs the scenery and costumes created for the 2007 Glimmerglass Opera presentation, has the same conductor, Anne Manson and the Glimmerglass Orphée, Philip Cutlip. The productions also share Lisa Saffer as La Princesse. The Portland Eurydice is Georgia Jarman. The production is well cast and I don’t hear a single weak voice.

It is a given that watching an opera in the house or elsewhere is a different experience from only hearing it. Nevertheless on the CD, without the visuals to animate this performance of Orphée, Glass’s music impresses with an uncomplicated, attractive, melodic, often hypnotic score... very listener friendly. It is sung in French with enclosed line-by-line English translations.

I would not have acquired this recording had I not attended the Glimmerglass performance. Over the years we have seen many new or rarely performed operas there. This year, from July 2nd to August 23rd, they will mount productions of Carmen, Medea and Annie Get Your Gun (with Deborah Voigt as Annie Oakley). Also a double bill: the premier of A Blizzard at Marblehead Neck by Broadway composer Jeanine Tesori together with Later the Same Evening by John Musto. Glimmerglass is just before Cooperstown in New York State, only six hours from Toronto. Take the New York Thruway (I-90) and hang a right at Herkimer. Go for the weekend, visit the Baseball Museum and luxuriate over the Sunday buffet brunch at the Otesaga Hotel overlooking the lake.

04_BinibonElliott Sharp - Binibon
Elliott Sharp; Jack Womack
Henceforth Records 110 (www.henceforthrecords.com)

Theatrically gripping and sonically sophisticated, this modern opera by composer Elliott Sharp and librettist/narrator Jack Womack reflects the events surrounding a 1981 killing in New York’s East Village. That flashpoint was the genesis for a musical meditation on Manhattan, where “everyone has a favorite murder.”

Through studio wizardry Sharp creates all the instrumental sounds on reeds, guitars, bass, percussion, synthesizer and programmed samples. With the score providing leitmotifs for the story, Sharp’s instincts are note-perfect, whether backing the narrator’s hard-boiled sardonic drawl with overblown saxophone vibrato à la Harlem Nocturne or using menacing guitar flanges to underline Jedediah Schultz’s dialogue as protagonist Jack Henry Abbott boasting how he can gut a victim while knifing him. Later echoing industrial sound accelerates to synthesizer and drum-beat disco-funk, when waitress Susie (sung by Queen Esther) defiantly describes her street smarts, then in funky R&B mode, vocalizes her view of the tragedy.

A 24-hour Bohemian hang-out, the Binibon restaurant was where manager/actor Richie Aden (sung by Cy Fore) was murdered by Abbott, a writer and psychopathic criminal. While the libretto makes clear that the brutal murder presaged the city’s gentrifying, to become “Ground Zero Disneyland” as Womack states deadpan while samples of ecclesiastical organ music pump in the background, Sharp’s music evocatively recreates the 1980s sound milieu.

Whether it’s the jerky pulsating electronics that backs Ryan Quinn’s campy rap as drag queen and eyewitness Fabuluscious or the hard-C&W styled guitar twangs that frame the showdown and eventual murder – escalating to motor-driven grinds and scrapes during the act itself – the music is appropriately illustrative. Binibon is a momentous achievement, because Sharp and Womack have not only recreated a particular time and place, but also recast it in the form of top-flight musical drama.

05_Rethink_foreverPeter Hannan - Rethink Forever
Musica Intima; Vancouver Cantata Singers
Artifact Music ART040 (www.artifactmusic.ca)

Happiness, love and the inequities of life drive the creative juices of composer Peter Hannan in the four vocal works (two with tape) here. This is not your standard choral fare – featuring Musica Intima on two tracks, the Vancouver Cantata Singers on another, and soprano Siri Olesen on the last, “Rethink Forever” will challenge the listener to rethink the nature of contemporary choral music forever.

Hannan uses his formidable skills in vocal scoring and tape development to set his self-penned, witty yet at times very troubling, lyrics to music. Musically, he draws on diverse influences, from ethereal harmonies, to traditional African music to the beats of pop. His words are drawn from his experiences living in Africa to Christopher Columbus to the happy gal at the checkout counter. What amazes is his ability to develop and superimpose these ideas seamlessly.

The performances are world class. This is tough material to perform, yet both choirs are solid in their technique and musicality. Soprano Siri Olesen’s distinct voice is especially suitable to Hannan's compositional style – her haunting take on the equally haunting work for soprano and tape entitled No Brighter Sun: No Darker Night is a sudden reminder that “art” at its very best is simple and clear.

The liner notes are a great support in aiding one through the material. Artifact’s superb production values are impressive too. Hannan need not search for “happiness” anymore. He’s got it right on his own CD!

01_emma_kirkbyOrpheus in England - Dowland & Purcell
Emma Kirkby & Jakob Lindberg
BIS CD-1725

Orpheus is famed in classical mythology for his music which charmed and soothed all those who heard: be they gods, demons, humans, animals, elements, vegetation or even rocks and stones. The two English composers featured on this recording shared this ability. Recognized as “the English Orpheus” by his patron, John Dowland was sought in the European courts as both composer and performer of the finest songs for voice and lute. Performing this music with all its bittersweet tenderness requires a purity of tone from the singer combined with a deft and light touch from the lutenist. And whose sensibilities are better to deliver this more expertly than Emma Kirkby and Jacob Lindberg handling the gamut from bright pastoral delights like By a fountain where I lay to the melancholic despair of In darkness let me dwell? Interspersed are solo lute offerings such as The Earl of Essex, his galliard and Lacrimae.

While the second Orpheus Britannicus featured generally made use of larger musical forces, many of Henry Purcell’s tunes lend themselves well to Lindberg’s own transcriptions for solo lute, such as the Echo dance of the furies from Dido & Aeneas and Lillibulero. Kirkby’s diction and pacing add superb dramatic content to From Silent Shades as well as her brilliant emotive vocal ebbs and swells in Music for a while. The listener is indeed transported to a time of grace and beauty through music’s true power.

02_baroque_tenorsThree Baroque Tenors
Ian Bostridge; The English Concert; Bernard Labadie
EMI Classics 6 26864 2

Castrati were some of early opera’s superstars; they eventually found their supremacy challenged by the rise of the tenor, often showcased by composers such as Handel. This CD features Ian Bostridge interpreting music for three star tenors of Handel’s day – John Beard, Francesco Borosini and Annabile Po Fabri. The pieces selected reflect this showcasing, not least with Handel’s Where congeal’d the northern streams and Vivaldi’s La tiranna e avversa sorte, the latter’s musical score combining with its lyrics to drive home the determination of Tamese to rule.

Ian Bostridge chooses two consecutive pieces to show how Gasparini and Handel each depict the torment of the defeated Bajazet. Gasparini exploits the tenor register to full effect; Handel is more contemplative – contrast Bajazet’s resignation with the immediately following piece, Arne’s militaristic Rise, Glory, rise, where even loud drums can not extinguish Ian Bostridge’s inspired interpretation.

Even Handel’s frenetic D’un barbaro scortese receives Bostridge’s attention, demonstrating just how much energy could be generated by a leading baroque tenor. It should not, however, be thought that this collection is only about classical dignitaries laying down commands for mere subjects. William Boyce’s Solomon depicts plaintive scenes of love drawn from the Song of Solomon. In short, every known emotion features in the baroque tenor’s repertoire. And in Ian Bostridge’s.

03_schubert_goerneSchubert - Nacht und Traume
Matthias Goerne; Alexander Schmalcz
Harmonia Mundi HMC 902063

It’s a joy to have a recording capture your attention in its opening measures and hold it effortlessly for an hour. These Schubert Lieder sung by baritone Matthias Goerne with pianist Alexander Schmalcz do so because the performers know the seductive power of Romantic lyricism and how to use it.

While death is the subject of most of these poems, Schubert has written melodic lines that are anything but relentlessly bleak portrayals of this spectre. There are a couple of wonderfully grim items on the program to be sure, but most are surprisingly lovely and accurately reflect the poets’ emotional intentions.

Goerne’s voice is smooth, pleasantly dark for the range and of medium heft. He’s generally light for the mid and upper registers, which is exactly how these Lieder should be sung. His lower range opens a powerhouse where we hear his opera stage voice several times as in Totengräberweise, D. 869 and especially in Totengräbers Heimweh, D. 842.

Goerne and Schmalcz, moreover, present an artistic collaboration that raises the piano to a status of lyrical partnership. Schmalcz is a wonderfully sensitive accompanist. He knows when Schubert hands off a melodic line by sending the voice in an unexpected direction. Through some masterful touch of the keyboard he somehow produces a near tonal match to Goerne’s baritone voice and creates a wonderful aural effect.

True fans of Schubert lieder who still hold Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as torch-bearer for the genre will recognize some of his vocal and interpretive technique in Goerne’s performance and so they should… Goerne was one of his students.

04_kozena_lettereLettere Amorose
Magdalena Kozenà; Private Musicke; Pierre Pitzl
Deutsche Grammophon 477 8764

Magdalena Kozenà is one of those increasingly rare artists, who are not afraid of their own instrument. Many singers very quickly define a niche for themselves, where their voice sounds at its best – be it bel canto, romantic repertoire, modern music or music of the Baroque. They make sure there is no chance to trip up, no danger… but also no passion. Having heard Kozenà recently at the stage of the MET as a romantic and withdrawn Mélisande, I had to adjust my ears to this recording. In a splendid collection of the early 17th century Italian songs, Kozenà just opens her mouth and lets the sound emerge, fearlessly. Maybe it’s because she has nothing to fear: her voice sounds rich, gorgeous, exciting. Kozenà herself makes a few groan-inducing statements for the liner notes: she claims it’s easy to sing these songs, as they are technically undemanding. Well, many quite accomplished artists would not be so lucky with this repertoire.

Private Musicke adds to the charm of this disc with their quirky, joyful playing. One is somewhat reminded of Custer LaRue and the Baltimore Consort, but Kozenà is simply a superior vocalist. In nothing but a goose-bump inducing tour de force, she takes us through the works of Monteverdi, D’India, Merula, Marini, Caccini and Strozzi as if it were her daily vocal exercise. If you know her as an artist, I don’t have to encourage you to buy this disc. If, for whatever reason, you have not discovered her yet, you owe it to yourself to explore it!

05_fete_gauvinFête Galante
Karina Gauvin; Marc-Andre Hamelin
ATMA ACD2 2642

Though a reissue of a recital given in 1999 in the Montreal Radio-Canada studio, this recording is well worth a second run. The original received the 2000 Opus award for Best Vocal Recording and was selected as Chamber Music America’s Recording of the Year. Fêtes galantes, or garden parties, refers to a collection of poems by Paul Verlaine inspiring some of the best loved songs of fin de siècle composers and their successors. Karina Gauvin’s voice is magical, with a depth of tone and timbre one rarely finds but which suits the emotive quality of this repertoire so well. Fauré’s Mandoline and Clair de Lune are a lovely starting point for the ever-evolving repertoire. Gauvin navigates expertly through the dizzying atmospheric nuances of Debussy, she and pianist Marc-André Hamelin ever intertwining in a mesmerizing dance of tonal spectres. The singer’s depth of expression truly transcends in Poulenc’s Metamorphosis and both singer and pianist’s precision shine in Deux poèmes de Louis Aragon and Trois poèmes de Louise Lalanne which include some lively and tongue-twisting lyrics. In Honegger’s Saluste du Bartas she manages a perfect blend of regal bearing and human frailty. And finally, in charming settings of folk music by Ravel and Vuillermoz, the garden is made complete through the inclusion of the pastorale.

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